John Skoyles

Time flurries on, and sixty years accumulate

(Tim Bower Illustration)
By John Skoyles
January 25, 2010

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TWO FEET of snow fell a week after my 60th birthday, but I was prepared. A few years ago I bought an $800 snow blower so I could leave for work without the anxiety of waiting for the plow.

I remember questioning the salesman about its durability. He said his father had left him this same brand in his will.

I dug a path to the shed, where the blower refused to start. I considered continuing to shovel, but had second thoughts when I faced the wide driveway. Leaning over the machine once more, I recalled one of my birthday presents, a framed list of Chinese proverbs. One said: It is better to struggle with a sick jackass than to carry the wood yourself.

The engine eventually kicked in but seemed heavier, harder to maneuver. I remembered a friend warning me, “Don’t ruin the winter by hurting your back.’’ And a few days earlier, my doctor bawled me out for missing annual physicals. He kept saying, “At your age. . .at your age. . .’’

When I bought the snow blower, I was so concerned about the machine’s endurance I forgot I’d be growing old along with it.

Two hours later, I was able to begin the 100-mile drive to pick up my son.

I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts near home. In Boston, I buy coffee and a bagel for $3.15 at the busy Tremont Street location, using exact change. Out of habit, I handed this clerk that same amount. She looked puzzled, took only the three dollars and returned a few coins. I glanced at the register. It said Senior Discount.

Earlier in the week, discussion in my poetry class centered around a student poem that used the enigmatic words, “a bump, a key, a fingernail.’’

I soon learned they referred to cocaine, and my students continued to educate me about the phrase by repeatedly saying “our generation,’’ and “my generation.’’ I refrained from saying it was The Who of my generation who sang “My Generation’’ with the lyrics we once loved: “I hope I die before I get old.’’

I felt much like my former teacher in graduate school, Donald Justice, who flew into a rage over a series of careless typographical errors in student poems. After giving us the ultimatum that he wouldn’t accept anything with a misprint, a student handed in a page with the line:

“I keep my bong in the closet. . .’’

Justice said that the poem would not be reviewed. None of us could find the mistake and the author asked Justice what was wrong.

“You left the o off bongo!’’ he seethed.

The worst and best part of turning 60 is that I don’t feel that age. I feel as if someone has fitted me with a costume I can’t remove: a 60-year old costume. I wear a mask that wrinkles as the costume grows heavier, as if made of chain mail.

The day after conquering the snow and driving the 100 miles, I met a friend for lunch. When I leaned slightly over the table to lift a turkey club sandwich, I was hit with a paralyzing pain, like a two-by-four to the spine, a seizure I recognized from summer, when I was mowing the lawn on the shady side of a tall privet hedge, and collapsed to the ground, prone and out of sight of the house, in the cool dark where mosquitoes like to dine.

I was able to leave the restaurant after lunch, but when I stood, vibrations like little mallet taps ran up my spine with the muffled sound of buttons popped from a shirt.

I walked stiffly, recalling another costume, the one worn by my small son years ago, on Halloween, when I sent him off as a robot after wrapping his entire body in silver duct tape.

Now 23, he asked me when I got home, “You hurt your back lifting a sandwich?’’

I quoted another Chinese proverb, “It’s not the last blow of the axe that fells the tree.’’

But I was also thinking of my poetry class, and W. H. Auden’s line, “Time will say nothing but I told you so.’’

John Skoyles, a guest columnist, teaches at Emerson College and is the author of a memoir, “Secret Frequencies: A New York Education.’’

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